Authors: Kirk Ranzetta, Leesa Gratreak, Patience Stuart, URS Corporation
Oak Hills was a precedent-setting master-planned community in the Portland, Oregon metropolitan area in the 1960s and early 1970s. The Planned Unit Development (PUD) is distinguished by its harmonious combination of clustered residences, open space, circulation patterns that balanced both pedestrian and automobile needs, and the architectural eclecticism emblematic of mid-1960s land use planning and architectural design. Oak Hills is Oregon’s first designated mid-century modern Historic District, celebrating its recent 2013 listing  in the National Register of Historic Places.
Image (above): The Oak Hills townhouses constructed in 1968. These represented the first “townhouses” to be built in Oregon under the design guidelines established by the Federal Housing Administration. This image appears on a larger brochure that is currently in the Oak Hills Homeowners Association archives.
Located in Beaverton, Oregon, the Oak Hills National Register Historic District encompasses approximately 240 acres and consists of a single, master-planned that includes 627 single-family, detached homes, 24 townhouse units in the state’s first FHA-insured townhouse development, an elementary school, a church, a former sewage plant building, a community recreation center, an entrance sign, and two parks. The district’s cohesively designed setting is characterized by a curvilinear road network, single-family residential clusters, townhouse blocks, as well as a centrally located park that includes passive open space, recreational fields, and pedestrian walkways. The individual houses feature a diversified but intentionally limited set of design schemes. A majority of the houses were constructed between 1965 and 1974. A cluster of five lots were subdivided and developed in 1978 and an additional cluster of 27 lots were developed between 1994 and 1995.
Image (right): Map showing distribution of homes by date of construction. Credit: Martha Richards, URS Corp.
The cluster development, open space, circulation patterns, and architectural types capture the principal design elements of this suburban planned unit development and reveal that the combination of these features distinguishes Oak Hills as one of the most complete and cohesive master-planned communities from the 1960s in metropolitan Portland. From the lighting details and distinctive entrance sign to the safe network pedestrian walkways that lead to the generous open spaces, the Oak Hills Historic District readily conveys its significance as a “village” concept that successfully integrated the domestic, recreation, education, and religious aspects of everyday life.
The architecture of the neighborhood consists of an eclectic blend of traditional and modern designs. Approximately 81 percent of the homes within the subdivision appear to have been built from two home-design catalogs created by the original developers; United Homes and Rummer Homes. The range of model homes and the designs in the catalogs discouraged monotony through its range of choices but nonetheless controlled the overall appearance and quality of home construction.
Image (left): 2720 NW Forest Avenue, Oak Hills. Credit: Kirk Ranzetta.
The overwhelming majority of the houses reflect an overall proclivity toward the Ranch style. These one-story gable-roof, gable-on-hip, or hipped-roof dwellings were often sheathed with wood clapboard or plywood and boasted a fenestration of large aluminum or wood picture windows, sometimes traditionally dressed with non-functional louvered shutters. Roofs were typically covered with wood shingles or shakes. Though many of the designs can be classified as Ranch or Ranch-form types, the individual details associated with each design make them unique. By far the most common design choice was to go with a more conservative form type and not attempt to make too strong of an association to any specific historical reference. For example, the Spacemaker, Springwood, Oakwood, and Bridlewood models from United Homes, which are the most common United Homes’ designs attributed to Oak Hills, reflect the middle-income choices of young couples and families hoping to maximize square footage while maintaining unity with the neighborhood. Less commonly chosen were the Eichler-inspired Classic and the Neo-Tudor Royalwood.
The clustered housing allowed for unfettered access to a larger area of commonly held open space throughout the development. Owned by the homeowners association, the centrally located recreational fields and informal grassy spaces emphasize aesthetics, recreation, and nature. While the flat, grassy playing fields invite recreational activities such as soccer and baseball, the more informal open spaces exhibit undulating land contours that invite more casual recreational use. All of the residential clusters are within 100-200 feet of open space – either the large central fields or small pocket parks. In addition, mature trees line many of the open spaces and show the development team’s strategic focus on conserving and utilizing with the existing mature trees already on the site.
Image (right): The Spacemaker II model from Oak Hills catalog of house models offered within the Oak Hills PUD.
Circulation patterns within Oak Hills consist of an internal hierarchy of pedestrian walkways and sidewalks as well as a road network of major roads, loop roads, and cul-de-sacs. Surrounded on all four boundaries by major arterials, the Oak Hills development intentionally limited automobile access to just four entries. The principal rationale behind limiting access was to reduce through trips by non-residents, decrease automobile speeds, and create a leisurely aesthetic. The network of walkways provides easy pedestrian access to all parts of the development.
Image (below): Oak Hills Church. Credit: Leesa Gratreak.
The combination of house styles, residential types, public buildings, landscape features, circulation patterns, and open spaces create a harmonious overall design that is intact and clearly identifiable. The architecture and landscaping of Oak Hills are superb examples of American trends towards uniformity and clean lines and emphasize the desire to create livable, beautiful spaces in response to many of the less socially conscious designs being implemented in other developments during this time.
Oak Hills is significant due to its ties to a larger societal and design response to “ticky tacky” suburban development. With its “village” design concept joining single and multi-family residences, as well as religious, educational, and recreational facilities into a cohesive whole, Oak Hills sought to address many of the negative environmental and social externalities of post-World War II housing developments. The Oak Hills community also reflects the impacts that homeowners associations (HOAs) and their implementation of Covenants, Conditions & Restrictions (CC&Rs) had upon the long-term governance of developments across the United States. Oak Hills is an early example of an HOA-governed development that was replicated elsewhere in the Portland area after 1966 and represents one of the most complete, mixed-use, planned communities in the greater metropolitan Portland area. Furthermore, the development’s architectural eclecticism and hierarchical circulation pattern reflect the intentions of developers as well as the aesthetic desires of suburbanites during the period. As an early, precedent-setting development, Oak Hills has proven to be a window into the early environmental and social consciousness that has come to represent a lasting physical and social response to sprawl.
In 2012-2013, URS Corporation prepared a National Register of Historic Places nomination for the Oak Hills Historic District, Oregon's first mid-century Modern Style historic district. The work was completed using funds from Washington County Transportation Department to mitigate the widening of Bethany Boulevard that borders the Oak Hills neighborhood. The Oak Hills Home Owners Association oversaw completion of the project.